(Nearly) Useless OPSEC Measure: Route Variation

The practice of varying your routes between home and work is sometimes touted as an OPSEC measure.  This is sometimes advocated by law enforcement or military organizations as a measure their members should take, and in some instances it may actually be a good idea. I began to think seriously about this, however, when I read a few articles that explicity or implicitly seemed to recommended the practice to average citizens in the prepping or “tactical lifestyle” communities. Continue reading “(Nearly) Useless OPSEC Measure: Route Variation”

Mechanical Lock Threat Models

In a continuation my suite on threat modeling, this post will discuss lock threat models.  There are many high security locks that are intended to address the vulnerabilities of the standard pin-tumbler mechanism.  There is also a spectrum between bargain-basement hardware and expensive high-security locksets.  I understand that security doesn’t exist in a vacuum: though it would probably be a more secure world if everyone had a high security lock, it would also be a very expensive one.  Deciding on the right lock for your needs should be informed by a threat model.  Continue reading “Mechanical Lock Threat Models”

Email Threat Models

In a continuation of my suite on threat modeling, this post will address email threat modeling specifically.  Selecting an email provider (or set of email providers) can be difficult if privacy and security are your chief concerns.  Gmail is abyssmal when it comes to privacy, but even paid providers struggle to match its security.  Selecting an email provider for sensitive communications should be done based on your threat model(s), and you may end up maintaining several accounts for different purposes.  It is my hope that these threat models will provide some clarity into what threat(s) each email provider defends you against.  I also hope this helps you choose a setup that you are comfortable with. Continue reading “Email Threat Models”

Ten OPSEC Principles

There are several Operational Security “commandments” lists on the internet.  Some of them are quite good but being me, I wanted to write my own set of Ten OPSEC Principles.  These OPSEC principles here are designed to avoid compromise (“getting caught”), and minimizing the damage when you inevitably do.  The consequence of compromise varies based on your operational activities.  To drug dealers or other members of criminal networks compromise means prosecution and jail time.  For spies and intelligence operatives, or military special operations types, compromise means some combination of blowing an operation, being arrested or declared persona non grata, getting killed, or getting an informant arrested or killed.

Continue reading “Ten OPSEC Principles”

Threat Modeling: Profile Elevation

A couple of weeks ago I posted my introduction to threat modeling.  Several times in that post I mentioned the concept of profile elevation, and it will certainly be coming up more as I flesh out my thoughts on threat modeling.  It has occured to me that this topic should be explored more fully. Profile elevation is a fairly intuitive concept.  For our purposes we can describe it as† “the generally-undesirable condition of:

  1. becoming more visible to one’s adversary, and/or
  2. becoming more interesting to one’s adversary.”

Being either or both more visible and/or interesting to your adversary is a bad thing in nearly any adversarial situation (Murphy’s Laws of Combat: Try to look unimportant, the enemy may be low on ammunition).  If you are highly visible to an adversary your movements, whether online or in the real world, are easier to track.  If you are interesting to your adversary, he or she will be willing to invest time and money to pursue you, digitally or physically.  Targeted surveillance costs time and money, and most adversaries will be limited in some capacity on each.  In the digital collection realm this limitation is often one of analytical or language capabilities; paying competent analysts and linguists is expensive.  Fitting their findings into a bigger picture is also difficult unless you have elevated your profile to the point of being interesting.

Profile Elevation

In the “tactical” community profile elevation avoidance is referred to as being a “grey man“.  If your personal threat model(s) warrant it, you should strive for the being digitally grey.  That is, blending with the herd and being generally uninteresting to avoid becoming a target.  Once your adversary has become focused on you and your activities, defeating him or her can become extremely difficult in the short to mid-term, and next-to-impossible in the long term.  As I mentioned in threat modeling, the best way to do this is to select mitigations that are in accordance with your perceived threat model.

The next two articles in my threat modeling suite will cover specifically threat modeling different encrypted email options and virtual private networks.

†This is my made-up definition.  If you think it needs improvement, let me know.

Threat Modeling: An Introduction

I have previously written about categorizing attackers based on their levels of skill and focus.  I have also written about categorizing security measures to defeat attackers with a given level of skill or focus.  Both of these posts tie in closely with (and were early attempts at) a topic that I want to explore more fully in coming months: threat modeling.  Threat modeling is the examination of two things as they relate to each other: an adversary and a security measure.  The effectiveness of the security measure is weighed against the skill and capabilities, focus, and time available to the attacker.  Threat modeling allows you to understand what you “look like” to your opposition, understand his or her capabilities, and select effective mitigations. Continue reading “Threat Modeling: An Introduction”

Attacks and Attackers, Categorized

Types of Attacks, Types of Attackers

In previous posts I have referenced two different types of attacks: opportunistic and focused. These categories apply to attacks of all kinds, physical and digital, an understanding them is important to fully understanding how to defend against them. This post will attempt to define these two types of attack and the attackers that may carry out each.  Please note that these are my own definitions and should not be considered “official”.

Types of Attacks

The types of attacks one may face fall into one of the following two categories: opportunistic and focused or targeted. These two descriptions exist on far ends of the spectrum; every attack will fall somewhere between the two.

The Opportunistic Attack: This type of attack is most common, and is not directed at you personally. Though it may feel extremely personal, especially if the attack is violent in nature, the attack is merely one of opportunity. I considered also categorizing the opportunistic attack as “random”. This attack is not truly random, however. The attacker has made an assessment (perhaps an extremely inaccurate one, perhaps not) that you or your belongings are vulnerable and upon this assessment has made a decision to attack. We can almost entirely avoid this type of attack by being a hard target. Doing so will encourage the opportunistic attacker to move on to a softer target.

The Focused/Targeted Attack: This type of attack is carried out specifically against you and is much more difficult to defend against. The focused/targeted attack will be characterized by a lengthy planning and reconnaissance period, during which time you may be under surveillance, have your perimeter probed, and test runs may occur. The true danger with a focused attack is the willingness of the attacker to adapt his or her methodology to bypass your countermeasures. The best defense against a focused, targeted attack is vigilance and a comprehensive defense-in-depth.

Attacks and Attackers

Types of Attackers

Attackers themselves are slightly more nuanced. Categorizing attackers requires attention to two specific attributes: skill level and focus (how interested the attacker is in you specifically). The combination of the two will vary, and will define the attack. The least capable attackers will lack both skill and focus, while the most capable will have ample levels of both.

Level I: An attacker at this level will possess minimal skill, minimal knowledge of his or her target, and little to no focus on a specific target. Examples of this attacker include the kid who is sniffing unsecured Wi-Fi hotspots, the guy who hopes to shoulder-surf your PIN at the ATM, or the smash-and-grab thief who notices there is no car in your driveway and all your lights are off. Defeating this category of attacker is relatively easy: make yourself a hard target by using common sense security measures. An attack by a person at this level will be an opportunistic attack.

Level II: A Level II attacker will possess either some degree of skill or some personal knowledge of you. Examples include an accomplished, skilled burglar who has cased your home or an ex-boyfriend/girlfriend who is out for revenge and has personal knowledge of you but little skill. An attack originating from someone in this category has a higher likelihood of success than an attack from a Level I attacker, and may be opportunistic or targeted/focused. Further, an attacker in this category may be easily dissuaded when encountering a significant obstacle.

Level III: Level III attackers are characterized by a combination of a decent skill level and either personal knowledge of you or the skill and patience to acquire that knowledge. Examples of this type of attacker include professional criminals, serial killers, hackers, and con men. Encounters with individuals in this category are relatively rare but the consequences are potentially dire. An attack by an individual in this category may be opportunistic or targeted, but his or her methodology will be more sophisticated. Deterring or defeating someone in this category requires much more work than Levels I and II. Upgraded security measures, constant adherence to best practices, and situational awareness are the best defense against an attacker in this category.

Level IV: Level IV attackers are known in the information security community as “advanced persistent threats”. Governments fall into this category, as do hacker groups like Anonymous and other extremely sophisticated adversaries who are specifically targeting a specific individual. The attacks perpetrated by these types are not opportunistic; they are targeting you for a specific reason. Perhaps you have angered someone, you are perceived as threat to them, or you are the subject of an investigation. An advanced persistent threat will be characterized by intense focus, extremely sophisticated techniques, the time to conduct a thorough reconnaissance, and the ability to adapt to defeat your countermeasures. The chances of facing a Level IV attacker are very small, and the chances of an Level IV attacker succeeding increase steadily over time.

The higher the level of the attacker and the more the attack trends toward targeted focus, more finesse can be expected to be employed, and time is on the side of the attacker. Unless he or she is strictly opportunistic the attacker has the luxury of time; time to probe your perimeter, learn from mistakes, and try again another day. At this point defenses become somewhat less about preventing the attack and more about making the attacker’s job more difficult and detecting his presence before, during, or after the attack.

On Balancing Security, Safety, and Convenience

There is a long-standing adage among security “people” that says convenience and security are ever at odds (or perhaps a bit more precisely put, inversely proportional). As the convenience of a given system goes up, its security will necessarily go down. Generally speaking this is true.  The convenience of a system is lent to authorized and unauthorized users alike. I would like to deal with specificity rather than generality in this post, however, and closely examine the relationship between these two concepts and one more.

Safety is the other factor that that I would like to bring into this discussion. Though safety and security are closely interrelated and often used synonymously they are different and must be examined as separate phenomena. Before we go further, I should tease out the difference between the terms safety and security.

Safety v. Security

Safety is, at its essence, protection of life and prevention of injury, caused primarily by accidents and mishaps. A manufacturing plant may place great emphasis on safety by implementing a “Safety First” campaign, installing fire suppression systems, placing eye-wash stations throughout the facility, and having an EMT on duty. All of these steps make the facility a safer environment but none of them increase security at all.

Security is typically defined as protection against criminal acts, and may or may not refer to the protection of people. The same manufacturing facility in the example above can install CCTV cameras, high security locks, an ominous chain-link fence, and an access control system to sensitive areas, all of which increase security. Unlike safety measures that do not make the plant more secure, these security measures may make it safer against certain threats while simultaneously making less safe against others. With the security measures, the employees are safer against criminal acts that would result in death and bodily injury such as a disgruntled gunman or a terrorist act. Depending on the implementation, however, the security measures may make it more difficult for employees to egress in the event of an industrial accident, lowering the overall level of safety.

Though all of the examples I have cited thus far pertain to physical safety and security, convenience, security, and safety are all factors in the digital security realm, as well.  Though the protection of data systems and data from power surges, natural disasters, hard drive failures, and other mishaps (typically through backups) is lumped in with “infosec”.  It would perhaps be more appropriate to call this type of protection “infosafety” (to coin a term).  Protecting these same infosystems and their backups from deliberate human threats is an approriate use of of the terms “infosec” and “information security”, however.  Finally, convenience plays a huge roll in infosec and “infosafety”.  Both infosec and infosafety can be at odds, though it may seem counterintuitive.  It would be very safe to have data backups on multiple hard drives and in mulitple cloud providers.  It would be even safer if these backups were unencrypted; encryption introduces the possibility that the data may not be able to be decrypted when needed.  This system would be very safe but it would also be incredibly insecure.

It is entirely possible for a system (whether digital, residential, commercial, industrial, et cetera) to be both safe and secure. It is also possible for the same system to be very secure but unsafe, or to be very safe but insecure; the distinction is in the dangers that are primarily protected against.

Security v. Safety v. Convenience

Convenience is also in competition with security. Generally speaking, the more convenient a system becomes for the user, the more convenient it becomes for an attacker and security is subsequently lowered. For example, employees at our exemplar facility may tire of having to use a key to gain access back into their workspace after smoking and leave the door propped open. This is a convenience measure in the interest of the individual employee, caused by the security measures that are in the interest of the plant’s owners or managers. This also impacts safety, since an open door will not prevent the spread of fire or dangerous gasses that a closed door would.

In closing, a physical security system must balance safety, security, and convenience. It must be safe for the occupants, secure against outside threats, and convenient enough that the system will not be overridden. In digital systems (at least at the personal user level) have no requirement for safety, but they should still balance security and convenience. The designer of the system (the homeowner or Chief Security Officer) must weigh all of these considerations when implementing a system. He or she must also monitor use and be willing to adapt the system or provide user training based on usage patterns to achieve maximum compliance.

The convenience of a system can impact both its safety and security.  It is not secret that as many security and safety processes as possible should be automated.  Things like backups, updates, and encryption should happen with as little user input as possible to ensure compliance.  When a system becomes overly complex, users will opt-out of the security of a system; this is when things like leaving computers on and unlocked being to occur.  The convenience of a system should be weighed against the risks the system faces and the tolerance of its users for security measures.  Make a system too secure and pretty soon it is far less secure because users will begin bypassing the security to achieve a balance, an equilibrium, a stasis of safety, security, and convenience.

The Point

This topic is especially germaine to me both in the writing of books on security, and in convincing my family and friends to adopt encryption and other security measures.  There is a constant struggle between the two, and those who do not have a specific interest in security and/or privacy typically have a very low tolerance for inconvenience.  Why do I recommend ProtonMail over Thunderbird with GPG/Enigmail?  The latter is certainly more secure.  Why do I recommend Cryptocat over ChatSecure when ChatsSecure is more secure?  I do so because I want to encourage participation among those who have little interest.  As security becomes more convenient through services like ProtonMail and Tutanota, perhaps a significant percentage of people will choose to adopt security.